Tangling with Aerialists

One of my favorite things in the world is to play with other musicians, especially in small ensembles. This past week, I had the chance to do a very different, and for me, very new kind of collaboration. I’ve always loved interdisciplinary projects, and had the opportunity to join forces with an aerial acrobatics company.

caeli_tangle_invert

No, I was not hanging from a trapeze. I was playing alongside the performers of Tangle Movement Arts, a Philadelphia-based aerial acrobatic theater company founded by my sister, Lauren Rile Smith. The show, titled INVERT!, took place at the Rotunda, a huge, dome-shaped former church sanctuary near the University of Pennsylvania campus.

I performed a series of brief intermezzos by Paganini, Bach, Piazzolla, Massenet, and a piece by Melissa Dunphy between daring and brilliant feminist-inspired acts on trapeze, lyra (hoop), and rope. The huge organ pipes in the background created a dramatic backdrop. In the photo below, my younger sister, Pascale Smith, also a Tangle member, performs on the trapeze while reciting a Marilyn Hacker poem. These wonderful photos are courtesy of the Philadelphia Dance Photo Project.

calla organ pipe

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Juilliard Juries!

gavelA few days ago, I was power walking through the fourth-floor hallway, desperate for a practice studio. Every room seemed to be occupied — typical for a weekday morning. But this time I was feeling extra pressure. My jury was in an hour.

In music conservatories, students are required to take annual juries. We prepare a variety of prescribed repertoire – concertos, sonatas, and unaccompanied Bach – to perform before a panel of faculty. These juries are only ten or fifteen minutes long, but they’re terrifying. At Juilliard, juries are essentially graded auditions that determine whether or not we will be allowed to remain enrolled in the school. Although I’ve never heard of anyone being kicked out for a sub-par jury, it’s scary to think that it’s possible.

The job of the jury panel is to give the performer a numerical grade for creative expression and technical mastery. This quantitative expression makes the artistic experience feel contrived. It’s sort of a performance, but going into it, you know you’re going to be interrupted in the middle of the piece, and the whole time you’re playing, the panel is scratching down comments and critiques.

Jury week means a lot of stress for musicians. Every year thus far of my undergrad career, I have had a meltdown in the week prior to my jury. I somehow convince myself that I’m unable to play the violin, that my fingers and brain are inadequate, that my memory will fail me, that the hours and hours of practice that I’ve put in will not result in an acceptable performance. This year, three days before my jury, I gave a mock-performance for my sister, which ended with me lying face-down on the carpet, moaning, while she tried to pry me off the floor.

So, flash back to the other morning, while I was gobbling down bananas and trying to find a place to warm up. Outside one practice room, I heard a jazz drummer playing, and I had a funny thought.

I should preface this by saying that there is sort of an unfair stigma about jazz players at Juilliard, from the point of view of classical musicians, which is that they never practice. I’m sure this is an unmerited reputation, but it exists. In fact, while writing this, I realized that I used the word “playing” instead of the word “practicing” at the beginning of the previous paragraph, whereas if it had been a violinist or a pianist, I would without a doubt have said “practicing”. Why is it that they “play”, but we “practice”?

As I listened to this student practicing, playing, or in some way preparing for his jury, I said to myself, “God, jazz juries must be so fun, and relaxed. I mean, listen to the music they’re playing! They must be an absolute breeze, because jazz is, like, FUN.”

As soon as the thought passed through my mind, I began to laugh. I was being ridiculous for two reasons. The first reason is that I know perfectly well jazz juries are not all that easy. Apparently, the faculty puts 60 songs into a hat and draws them at random to determine what the student should play. Repertoire determined by lottery – nerve-wracking.

But secondly, how telling was it that I dismissed jazz juries as being no big deal on the premise that the music is “fun”, and meant to be enjoyed, instead of stressed over, whereas I thought of juries for classical musicians as a whole different process? Wasn’t my music “fun” – and: profound and reflective, buoyant and vivacious, and everything in between?

I had been agonizing over presenting myself to this panel of esteemed violin professors, and proving my worth to them – proving that I could play my octaves in tune, and give the nonuplets in the third movement of the Stravinsky concerto the fluid, improvisatory quality that they required.

I remembered, then, why I study music, and what the essence of this music is. All of a sudden, entering my jury seemed less like marching towards an execution, and more like a chance to show my teachers how I felt about the music and what I could do about it.

The moral to stories like this one is always the same, and it feels cliché to say it. And yet I find myself having the same realization repeatedly, usually when I’m so nervous about performing that I feel like I will explode. But it really does always come back to forgetting about yourself and your insecurities, and remembering the music and why you’re there to play. With this in my mind, an hour later I walked into the room to face the panel. I smiled, and raised my violin to play.

Blowing off steam after my jury!

Blowing off steam after a successful jury.